As University of California Berkeley again faces sexual harassment allegations, some might refer to their history in recent years as a plaque of sexual harassment reports. Most recently, a renowned University of California Berkeley professor was sued due to alleged groping of an Asian-American research assistant. The former student, 24-year old Joanna Ong, filed the lawsuit against UC Berkeley’s star Philosophy professor, John R. Searle. She claims that he groper her and when she declined his advances, he fired her.
The California sexual harassment lawsuit was filed at Alameda County Superior Court seeking damages for sexual harassment and assault, wrongful termination and the creation of a hostile work environment. In addition to the star Philosophy professor being listed as defendant in the case, Regents of the University of California were listed as co-dependents.
Ong stated that as such a renowned professor of philosophy, Searle should be completely familiar with the concept of coercion, but that instead both the professor and the university used their power and their platform to abuse others. While 84-year old Searle has stepped down from teaching, he retains emeritus status at the university. He has been teaching at UC Berkeley since 1959 and just last year, the university unveiled the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, the 1st center of its kind in the nation.
It was the same year when Ong was offered a job under Searle. According to court documents, the offer was for $1,000 per month salary as a consultant for the new center, plus $3,000 per month supplemented by Searle himself. Based on Searle’s reputation as an esteemed philosopher at UC Berkeley, Ong accepted the job offer willingly in July 2016. Ong claims the first few days of her job went well. Ong stated that she even shared her worries about making ends meet while pursuing a career in academia. Searle’s response was to reassure Ong that her living costs and needs would be taken care of and urged her to have a relationship of “total trust” with him. Things escalated quickly from that point. Searle allegedly groped Ong in his offer after advising her that they were “going to be lovers” amid other inappropriate claims and insinuations. When his proposal was rejected, Searle apologized and paid Ong the promised $3,000.
When Professor Searle went on vacation, Ong reported the incident to the center’s director, Jennifer Hudin, but no appropriate action was taken. Ong claims that Hudin told her that she would protect her from further advances, but that she also said Searle had previously had sexual relationships with his students in exchange for “academic, monetary or other benefits.”
From that point forward, Ong states that the workplace became increasingly hostile and awkward. When Searle returned from vacation, he pretended nothing happened. Ong stated that for the rest of her time in the position, Searle watched pornography at work, made inappropriately sexist comments when she was nearby, requested that Ong log into an inappropriate website for him, and insisted that Ong read and respond to his emails including flirtatious correspondence with young women (both UC Berkeley students and foreign students from Europe). Some of the women corresponding were asking to be his research assistant; which was at that time Ong’s position. Further complaints to Hudin garnered the response that nothing was done out of respect/loyalty for the professor and because Hudin needed to protect Searle.
Searle eventually cut Ong’s salary in half and fired her soon after the pay cut. Ong’s attorney points out that Hudin and other administrators and professors at UC Berkeley were aware of the lecherous behavior on Searle’s part based on a large amount of evidence of his sexual misconduct by both emails and actual complaints made against him.
If you need to discuss a hostile work environment or sexual harassment in the workplace, please contact one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.